Think back to the first time you experienced the world through a viewfinder. The moment you found focus on whatever it was that caught your eye, and the excitement that followed hearing the mechanical slap of the shutter, there to verify that you’ve captured that specific moment in time forever. For me, that excitement was experienced at a young age, and as I watch my oldest child near the same age that my memories of photography begin, I feel a responsibility to share the same opportunities with him that I was afforded early on.
Times have changed in many ways since my first experience with photography. In fact, my earliest memories with camera in hand involve Kodak disposable cameras and a few other inexpensive 35mm film cameras that were readily available throughout the nineties. As a child, I would tag along with my uncle as he filmed various off road races throughout the US Southwest and Mexico, bringing home with me rolls of film and spent disposable cameras. I particularly remember the excitement that would build while waiting for the images to be developed, and bothering my mother to pick them up from the local drug store - a process that's now obsolete in many ways.
Fast forward to the the present, and since upgrading to FX format bodies three or four years ago, I’ve had a Nikon D7000 sitting on a shelf in my office above my computer, pretty much just collecting dust. Along with that body, a Nikon 18-55mm kit lens that has seen little use since new.
Always looking for opportunities to spend time with my wife and two children (ages six and three years old), I recently decided to take my son’s interest in art and photography a little more serious by dusting off that old D7000 and putting it in his hands for an afternoon.
Children today are far more tech-savvy than ever before. Devices like tablets and smartphones, with relatively complicated apps for kids, often have camera’s built in, and if your phone’s photo gallery looks anything like mine, your kids have already figured out how to take pictures with those devices. So, what does that say for the future of photography if the upcoming generations are honing their skills on their iPhones instead of a more traditional camera?
Right off the bat, he was fixated on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Used to taking pictures with an iPhone, he naturally looked for a screen to confirm everything - down to whether or not the camera was even on. It wasn’t until later removing the battery grip from the camera (which made it way too large and bulky for his six-year-old hands), and explaining how to zoom in and out that he randomly began using the view finder to frame his shots.
Watching him set up his own scenes and find the most dramatic angles left me with the feeling that this is going to lead to some sort of stop-motion project for us in the future.
Photography is an excellent creative outlet for children. As parents, we're always after opportunities to give our children advice - especially when it comes to things we're passionate about. Teaching my kids how to use a camera also helps me to realize that photography is a discipline, and regardless of fads and trends, certain principles will always apply.
I adjusted the camera settings for him so he could concentrate on things like nailing focus, using the available light, and framing his shots in ways that made him excited (drawing inspiration from his favorite comic books).
As the outing progressed and we neared the playground, his focus naturally switched from carrying this heavy "picture-taker," to more regular six-year-old things. Next time we go somewhere to take pictures, I may avoid distractions, however it did provide an opportunity for him to chase his sister around and snap one capture I'll be hanging on a wall soon.
Fuel Their Imagination
I think it's important to let kids advance at their own pace and not force photography on them if they're not interested in it. If they're excited about photography, take advantage of that excitement and create opportunities for them to photograph things that fuel their imagination and keep them motivated.
Don't Focus On Gear
We've all seen pros shoot with silly camera's to help make the point that photography isn't all about what you're shooting with. I can tell you that my six-year-old has no interest in the latest photo-gear and mega-resolution cameras. He's happy to be using something that looks similar to what he see's me use, and since kids often mimic the behaviors of their parents, he's a natural at doing so.
Avoid Toy Cameras
If you're a parent and a photographer, chances are you've walked down many toy isles and have likely stumbled upon cameras for kids (in nearly all shapes and colors). You may have even considered purchasing one for your child. If you haven't already learned this the hard way, stay away from those cameras that distract kids from photography and create terrible images and consider one of the following options instead.
Perhaps you have an old DSLR laying around like I did that you can lend your child. You might be surprised at how fast they get the hang of using it. If you don't have an old camera laying around, I've come across working DSLRs at yard sales, pawnshops, and many camera shops have a used camera department you could comb for an inexpensive camera.
Budget friendly, and a good way to introduce children to film, disposable cameras can still be purchased all over the place.
While it's important to be there to provide guidance, I think it's equally important to give them the creative freedom to create work that's uniquely their own. While you can provide your child with the right camera, settings, time, and place, the image they capture is ultimately up to them.
Whether it's a disposable camera, an old DSLR you have laying around, or even your phone or tablet, there are small hands out there willing to pick it up along with little ears ready to listen to what you have to say about photography. Teaching your child how to use a camera could create a path for them to follow later in life that we have all found to be incredibly rewarding.